If we want our schools to continue the rapid pace of improvement that we have seen over the past few years, we need a strategy for finding and retaining the people who will lead them. The current statistics are scary. More than half (53.8%) of school leaders told The Key in our State of Education survey that they are seriously considering not continuing in their role beyond the next three years.
How can it be that one of the most important jobs in our society, one which can literally transform lives, is in danger of becoming one of its most unattractive? Perhaps it is that the fault lines appearing through our country are more noticeable in schools than most other areas.
The Key’s new report on pupil wellbeing suggests that school leaders are hugely concerned about pupils’ mental health (67%) and their exposure to domestic violence (58%). Yet the expectations on schools to turn out young people whose academic achievements will push England to the top of the international league tables, while ensuring that they are well-balanced, confident individuals who can contribute to society and the economy, have never been higher.
The trouble is that this rhetoric from the country’s leaders walks hand-in-hand with significant cuts to public services. It has become much harder to refer a young person who is self harming, for example, to child and adolescent mental health services: NHS spending on mental health services has been cut by 6%, or the equivalent of £50m. Similarly, a child who struggles to progress in reading even with intervention strategies in place might be left without options, as 81% of educational psychologists have reported a greater demand for their services than can be met.
It’s all very well saying that there is no money left and we have to make do, but schools need help to find solutions to society’s problem. And let’s be clear, it is society’s problem, not just a problem for school leaders.
If we want a solid foundation for our country’s future, it has to be built in families, schools and the communities in which they exist.
The current mounting pressures mean that school leaders are feeling the strain. As our pupil wellbeing report points out, mental health concerns aren’t just an issue for pupils. More than three in five (64%) school leaders say their mental health has been negatively affected by their role, and more than three-quarters (78%) say the same about their family life.
I am not often prone to negativity. Every week I see examples of superb leadership in our schools, people who are doing amazing jobs for our young people. But I worry deeply that with the odds stacked so high against them, in the next few years I will see fewer and fewer examples of such leadership.